This is the latest in a series of posts by Portland Architecture guest blogger Corbin Keech. Corbin is looking at how the recession has affected recent architecture school graduates. Corbin received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Kansas State University in 2006, and worked for the past two and a half years at ZGF Architects. He now provides contract design work for several architecture, urban design and planning companies in Portland.
“I don’t like to sit around and wait for things to happen. Whether it works or not, I don’t really care,” remarked Ken Tomita as we relax on his shop’s mezzanine/lounge in southeast Portland. “I have faith that whatever I choose to do, whether it works out or not, the resulting experience is always worth the risk.”
Ken was born in Yokohama, Japan and designs bamboo furniture. He is calm, but impatient. For him, comfort is derived from spontaneity, and guesswork is an expectation. I mean this in the least disparaging way possible.
Ken’s experimental design process has its origins in both his education as well as his life experience. While he’s currently enjoying stability here in Portland, he understands a feeling of permanence is likely to be fleeting. “The only thing I know is that I won’t be doing the same thing in five years,” adds. “I can only try to follow what feels natural.”
In the past nine years he has lived in both Portland and Eugene as well as Hawaii, Rhode Island, California, and again in Japan for one year of college. He has worked for Nike and built elaborate bamboo installations in Ireland, Colorado, as well as two separate structures at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada.
After acquiring a master’s degree in East Asian Studies and Art History at the University of Oregon, Ken attended The Rhode Island School of Design. After a semester of architecture classes he switched to Industrial Design, only to subsequently drop out and leave RISD entirely after being challenged by a trustworthy friend.
Jim Barnes, Ken’s materials professor at RISD, illuminated an element related to architecture that was significantly more accessible: furniture design. “He was the one professor who would actually discuss the real world with us,” Tomita said. “It wouldn’t ever dominate the discussion, but he actually took a few minutes to talk about what I considered to be crucial issues, like what you actually do at the office. How much money do architects make? How many women were in the field? And so on. His message simply resonated louder than most of the abstract discussion that permeated the studios.”
As someone who prefers to boldly jump in and start building, Ken could not come to terms with the onerous architectural design process. “Architecture is occasionally too big to comprehend, and I was basically overwhelmed by its scale,” he explains. “It just felt like too much guessing. I also couldn’t handle the disconnect between the drawings and reality. Architecture feels inhibited, and I had professors at RISD that helped me overcome my tendency to hold myself back.” This is essentially why Ken enjoys designing furniture. He is free to simply be himself. (One of his designs is pictured at the top of this post.)
Ken's restlessness is only matched by his confidence that the details will eventually work themselves out. In other words, the most important part of design is the big idea. Such can be said about Project Chaboo.
Conceived by Ken as a means to connect artists of all trades, Project Chaboo was a massive collaborative design experiment that took place this past March. While the show was organized by Ken it was propelled forward by a team of designers uniformly committed to the success of the event: Kari Merkl, Ken’s brother Yuji Tomita, Lisa Kuhnhausen, Emily Knudsen, and (in full disclosure) myself.
The objective was broad but the idea was simple: use Ken’s chaboo (a bamboo bench/table, as seen above) as a canvas. Dozens of Portland’s sculptors, illustrators, painters, architects, and carpenters participated, generating a series of creative networks that continue to remain strong. Popularity and interest in Project Chaboo became so great that Ken was forced to turn artists away from participating. Over a thousand people attended the show, a remarkable accomplishment considering the project took shape as it unfolded and Ken's vision was to simply connect people and create good vibes.
Ken had essentially tapped into something very simple that the community needed. We were collectively engaged the indisputably positive act of building. Moreover, Project Chaboo’s timing was crucial because people were struggling on every conceivable level, and we needed something positive in which we could invest ourselves. The only explanation for the event’s success had to be fortuitously making a connection with something outside of the event.
Work of this nature is soulful, originating from within rather than a set of rules or programmatic guidelines. Improvised design is a rarity within the realm of architecture, and this is difficult to overcome given the fundamentally complex act of constructing buildings. Nevertheless, a spontaneous design process has the potential to rejuvenate not just a group of artists, but also an entire community. Project Chaboo was proof of this.
While I’m loathe to admit that spontaneity and architecture typically don’t mix, I know for certain that extraordinary work was never been achieved without risk. Simply stated, I cannot imagine architecture without it. Furthermore, there’s something tremendously inspiring about design that is rooted in one’s instincts rather than precautions. It is without question an ethic that is applicable in any other field, especially architecture.